Telling Stories

I ignored my nerves and followed the young man. He walked briskly, confidently weaving a path through Athens’ city centre and out to its shabbier outskirt. Dusk fell, and I began to feel afraid: the cramped streets all looked the same and I couldn’t read Greek script on the street signs. I had no idea where I was.

I looked nervously at Ezmerey striding ahead of me. Clad in jeans and leather jacket, a phone glued to his ear, he laughed, switching easily from Arabic to Greek, and occasionally turning to talk with me in near perfect English. We had met a few hours earlier. He was not the first refugee I had interviewed in Athens, but was the first to trust me. He had been a football player in Afghanistan, and had begun to impress in one of Athens’ smaller leagues. But his chances of a glittering football career had been cut short by Greece’s then dysfunctional asylum system. Ezmerey’s application for asylum was one of tens of thousands; it could be years before he received an answer.

Still, the sense that I had been too trusting only disappeared when eventually we turned into a dilapidated building, walked up several flights of stairs, and I found myself sitting opposite two young Afghan women. As children crawled around us and men spoke loudly in another room, I got my notebook out and said: “Tell me your story.”

The fear I felt at being led through a foreign city late at night with a near-stranger for a will-o’-the-wisp story fell away. Here were people who had fled real danger and instability, and were now battling a European bureaucracy indifferent to their plight. They had sunk into poverty while waiting to find out if they would be allowed sanctuary. Meanwhile, they could not legally leave the country or find work to support themselves. My job was to listen and tell their stories.

Two years later, I sat listening to students discussing their work at the University of Warwick’s Writing Wrongs class, and was reminded of the stories I was told that winter in Greece. I attended the seminar as part of Lacuna’s editorial team to give a talk about the process of putting together the magazine.

We discussed everything from how to combat existing mainstream narratives and connect personal stories of injustice to wider, systematic violations of rights, to the ethics of writing about other people’s suffering. At one point, Maureen Freely, the course tutor, in an attempt to elicit a thoughtful answer, asked ‘why do you bother?’

The question made me think of Greece, when, plagued with my own doubts, editors ignoring pitch after pitch, worrying about my own sustenance, I instinctively followed Ezmerey, in search of a story.

And by following Ezmerey I met Farida, one of the Afghan women in the house, who told me a story of floating for 16 hours in the Aegean Sea, clinging to life, and watching fellow passengers drown. Before Europe, Farida tried her luck in Iran, where her children were denied an education and she struggled to find work. But the pattern of poverty and discrimination she experienced in Iran continued in Greece. The dingy flat where we met was shared with 23 others, all piled into two rooms sleeping on rugs. Farida’s 9-year-old son, a pale child with dark circles under his eyes, escaped the flat everyday to sell cigarette lighters. They were trapped in Greece, unable to leave because of EU regulations limiting the movement of asylum seekers. Yet she harboured hope. “We don’t have any more hope for our lives,” she says. “The best hope is for our children.”

Farida’s story reminds me why I bother. She hoped that the telling of it might change something. Her story is symptomatic of a global injustice, which can be traced across continents from the footprints of people who dare to run. Telling her story exposes the behaviour of governments, bears witness to these atrocities and prevents a cynical world from saying we did not know.

Telling stories is important, but change takes time. For things to change, there must be enough people asking why bother, and deciding to act. Choosing the best way to act is not an easy decision to make. For me the most difficult obstacle is the lack of a blueprint. But, over time, what is becoming clear to me is that the people doing useful things to combat injustice rarely follow a plan. Instead, they do what they can, when they can, with the skills they have. And rather than offering others wanting to act on injustice a path to follow, they should simply be an inspiration. A starting point, not a blueprint.

It took a series of storytellers to catalogue the horrors of Greece’s chaotic asylum system, so that refugees and migrants are no longer sent back there from other European countries.

Under the EU’s Dublin II regulations a person must apply for asylum in the first member state he or she enters. If an asylum seeker moves to another European member state to seek refuge there, their fingerprints will appear on a central database with details of their first claim. They are then deported to that country.

Most asylum seekers and paperless migrants enter Europe through Greece, a country whose asylum system was already in crisis before its financial problems hit. By 2010 the backlog of asylum claims had crept towards 70,000, the immigration holding centres were severely overcrowded and poorly kept, and hundreds of refugees lived in various states of destitution in cities like Athens. Yet other European countries still deported refugees back to Greece.

After years of NGO and journalist reports, protests by angry citizens, and people like Farida choosing to speak out, European countries have stopped deporting people to Greece. Pivotal was the 2011 European Court of Human Rights judgement in M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece, which decreed that Belgium had acted unlawfully in deporting an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece. The court also held that both countries had violated the asylum seeker’s human rights because of the deficiency in Greece’s asylum system and the deplorable detention conditions there.

One of Lacuna’s aims is to challenge the indifference to the suffering of others and stimulate action. To that end we’ll publish a series of frank, short interviews with people working across a range of professions, all working for the same goal, to challenge injustice and promote human rights. This will act as a useful starting point for those of you who read Lacuna and decide to act. And if you find yourself plagued with doubt or fear, asking why bother, look on these as a source of reassurance. There is no right way to tell a story, the important thing is that it is told.

The first of Lacuna’s interviews is with the author and journalist Clare Sambrook. You can also read interviews with campaigning journalist Katharine Quarmby and legal aid lawyer Nadia Salam, and a filmed interview with Russell Stetler, national mitigation coordinator for the federal death penalty projects in California. 

Photo by Zé Valdi


 

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Essential English

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This book is an excellent guide for all writers. It teaches the art of the concise sentence and the beauty of uncluttered prose. Harold Evans, former Sunday Times and Times editor, explains why using language simply is often so effective. It is also a fascinating insight into the language of newspapers.

Tell Me No Lies

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This is an inspiring collection of investigative journalism spanning continents and tackling a range of injustices. This includes Jo Wilding’s reporting from the ground in Falluja in 2004, Phillip Knightley’s reflections on uncovering the Thalidomide cases, Paul Foot’s 11-year investigation into the Lockerbie plane crash, Seumas Milne on the political and media efforts to discredit striking miners, and Anna Politkovskaya on the war in Chechnya. John Pilger opens with an essay making the argument for cynicism towards authority, and not the reader.

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The Freedom of Information Act is a fantastic investigative tool, but often government bodies to delay or avoid releasing information to the public. Your Right to Know is a smart guide to getting the information you need. Journalist and lecturer Heather Brooke provides accessible detail on the law, how to challenge a refusal, and discussion of relevant case law.

 

A conference to end sexual violence against women

This summer I reported on the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit held in London and organised by British politician William Hague and film star Angelina Jolie. The conference made headlines, particularly when Brad Pitt dropped in, but what was the substance of the summit and what exactly will it change?

The piece below was published by the New Statesman and a series of follow up articles will be published by Lacuna later this year.

 


 

 

So it begins again. Soldiers are systematically raping women, men, and children, this time in Syria. Piecing together testimonies gathered over the last three years, NGOs and journalists have identified case after case of sexual violence used to terrorise civilians.

The world is one in unanimous horror on this issue, but only in recent decades have governments and multilateral agencies classified rape as a crime against humanity.

Special tribunals for the prosecution of war crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia also investigate crimes of sexual violence, as does the International Criminal Court created under the Rome Statute in 1998. In 2000 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325, which called for a greater role for women in conflict resolution and peace negotiations.

And yet, as with prosecuting rape and sexual violence during peacetime, progress has been slow. Instead, there is a culture of impunity as around the world again and again soldiers “wage war on women’s bodies”.

Recently William Hague has taken up the cause and, working with the film star Angelina Jolie, begun an international campaign for justice and reparations for survivors. These efforts culminated in the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit, which, thanks to the celebrity factor, attracted acres of news coverage and popular support.

What does this mean for the women, men and children being raped in Syria, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in South Sudan today? Can a renewed campaign address the needs of rape survivors in Bosnia waiting for prosecutions 20 years on? Is this the push needed to finally end sexual violence in conflict?

 

What about Iraq?

As the summit drew to a close last Friday thoughts had already turned to events unravelling in Iraq.

Hundreds of campaigners, activists and government ministers had flocked to London for the four-day event organised by William Hague and Angelina Jolie.

The summit launched a new protocol for documenting and investigating sexual violence against men, women and children in conflict. The protocol is a first draft designed to end impunity for perpetrators and military leaders.

But even as delegates streamed from the darkened auditorium in London’s Excel centre, the buzz from the soaring rhetoric of Nobel prizewinners and revered former statesman still in the air, thoughts had turned to Iraq.

William Hague, John Kerry and Angelina Jolie addressed a press conference organised to answer questions about practical next steps. But most of the questions were about the possibility of a US-led military action in Iraq, not the practicality of policing and implementing the protocol.

A conference to address the devastating impact of war in some countries, hijacked by impending war in others. This was summed up neatly by Jolie’s response to a question about her inspiration. She spoke of an Iraqi refugee and rape survivor she met in Syria, who then went back to Iraq after the war broke out in Syria. As Jolie’s expression changed from composed to bewildered, her last words hung in the air: “I don’t know where she is now.”

An impossible task

The rude intrusion of current affairs exposed the limitations of the summit. While the protocol focuses on investigating crimes, the summit itself was heavily marketed as a push to end sexual violence in conflict completely, an impossible task without addressing wider global problems.

Julienne Lusenge, a Congolese women’s rights activist who works with and for rape survivors in Eastern Congo, was greeted with whoops and cheers when she raised these issues. The material in your phones, she told delegates, is a source of support for the armed groups who rape and pillage villages. “We would like to see work against the underlying causes of sexual violence, one of these is war and the other is backward customs keeping women in positions of inferiority.”

At another event, panel members were flummoxed when a Syrian gynecologist stood up and asked: “Is there a plan in this summit for dealing with the sexual violence in my country, Syria?”

The simplicity of the summit’s premise was called into question again when around 20 protestors turned up to condemn Britain’s treatment of female asylum seekers. Some had fled conflicts themselves and then experienced further sexual abuse in the UK at the hands of detention centre guards. They were ushered from the summit’s entrance as they shouted: “Close down Yarl’s Wood, we want protection, not detention”.

It was the delegates themselves who repeatedly raised these questions. They questioned the absence of a public statement from the Nigerian foreign minister (who attended and gave a speech at the summit) about the kidnapped girls in Boko Haram, for example. And the lack of discussion about Britain’s deportation of Sri Lankan victims of torture.

Referring to the official summit hash tag #TimeToAct, the American Nobel laureate Jody Williams said: “Time to act? We have been acting for decades.” Williams won the Nobel peace prize in 1997 for her campaign against the use of land mines and cluster munitions. Speaking at a fringe event she added: “Our role is to push governments to make them do what they should do anyway.

“It is not enough to talk about sexual violence in conflict. Sexual crimes against women, girls, and sometimes men, are a continual violence happening in every country, every single day.”

#TimeToAct ?

Throughout the summit there was a sense that governments had only just woken up to this particular war crime. #TimeToAct, a useful tool for engaging the public who might not otherwise access the summit’s content, littered the speeches of ministers from 113 countries, who universally condemned the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict and pledged support for the protocol. “As was said of slavery in the 18th century,” said William Hague in his opening speech, “now we know the facts, we cannot turn aside.”

The situation on the ground demands more than condemnation and speeches. One aim of the summit, for example, was to challenge impunity and deter future sexual violence. But this could prove difficult when the stigma of rape lingers on the ground.

Speaking at a fringe event, Nerma Jelacic a former journalist from Foča, where the Serbian army set up rape camps, told the story of a Bosnian woman who first testified in 1996 about the murder of her two brothers and husband during the war. In the decades since she has been an active campaigner for justice and has assisted the criminal courts in compiling evidence. “It wasn’t until a year and half ago that she told me she was raped in front of her two children [then aged 2 and 5]”, said Jelacic. “It took her 20 years to speak out.”

Even when rape survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina do speak out, support varies from state to state. One law dictates that survivors must provide two witnesses to qualify for reparations set aside specifically for civil victims of the war. This is mostly impossible, according to Denis Dzidic, an editor and trainer at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). It is one reason why at least 50,000 women were raped during the three-year war and so far just 60 cases have been prosecuted.

Since 2005 BIRN has documented the destitution of many Bosnian rape survivors. “The punishment of the perpetrators is only one part of their struggle,” says Jelacic. The lack of aftercare – economic support to help women rebuild their lives and medical care to tend physical and psychology wounds – was a recurrent theme across the summit, raised not just by Bosnian delegates, but by delegates working in the DRC, in Kenya, in Liberia, in Uganda.

Ruth Ochieng has spent more than 20 years campaigning for women’s rights in Uganda and her current work in South Sudan and Liberia is spent trying to secure economic, legal and medical support to survivors of sexual violence. “Women’s bodies are battered during conflict and afterwards they have no access to services, despite the fact that they mutilated. They are walking corpses.”

But, she added: “People underestimate the power of the women’s network. We are the least funded, the least recognised and last to be asked around the table to discuss solutions. The solution is in the women’s movement. Give money to the women’s movement.

“Grace Nekaski. Raped by 19 people, she got HIV and was disowned by her husband. However, Grace today has mobilised 450 other HIV survivors from her community. They run their own farms, grow oranges and keep cows. The women in that community have taken her as their leader. There are so many Graces.”

 

What happens next?

The protocol itself is a comprehensive document built on the expertise and testimonies of campaigners, NGOs, rape survivors themselves. The emphasis is on supporting investigations with the standards and definitions of theRome Statute of the International Criminal Court as a starting point.

In it is current form the protocol is a blueprint for those documenting and investigating sexual violence in conflict. It provides a framework that includes guidelines for different groups on how to work together to bring about a prosecution and templates for interviewing survivors to avoid causing further trauma.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will spend the next sixth months developing an implementation plan and carrying out more field testing. An FCO source said the UK would oversee the protocol’s development before eventually handing it over to a multilateral institution.

The beautiful line

Several times during the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit delegates were told that “this is a moment”. A turning point in history where somethingwas going to change. Yet women and rape survivors working on the ground remain cautious. This is not their first moment and nor will it be the last. Instead they have a specific set of wants, and only when politicians and governments act on these will they believe that the summit does indeed reflect a significant change attitudes to all victims of sexual violence.

They say their work will continue, but it is complex and needs financial backing for grassroots organisations and adequate reparations for the women and men they work with. Before perpetrators can be prosecuted there must be structures in place so the police can properly gather evidence and sensitively question rape victims. Amnesty for rapists should not be part of peace negotiations.

Women must also have a seat at the table during conflict resolution negotiations. There has to be an end to institutional sexism, which complicates the process of justice and treatment for rape survivors across the world, not just in post-conflict countries. Mary Robinson, special envoy for the Great Lakes Region, spoke at the summit about her battle to include women’s voices in the peace process, when the 13 heads of states she works with are all men, as are their technical advisors. These frustrations were echoed at a grassroots level. Sofepadi, a local charity working in Eastern DRC, has begun training women to stand in local elections, so they can “speak for themselves”.

Civil society and women’s rights activists are doing the work, but there are problems beyond their control. “We believe that without peace there is no end to sexual violence,” Nyota Babunga, a young Congolese campaigner. “We came to speak about peace, because we believe without peace there is no development. We need development for women. We can stand for women’s rights, we can fight for women’s rights, but if there is still conflict, then the men, the things that they are doing, the killing, the violation, will continue.”

Underlying all of the grassroots activity, which spanned the globe, was a deep commitment to women’s rights and feminist solidarity. Women from these countries are too often mute in mainstream Western consciousness, victims of terrible circumstances or entrenched patriarchy. Yet for a few days their voices were heard. During one presentation, Nobel laureate and peace campaigner Leymah Gbowee, a charismatic presence with a deep, booming voice, said:

“In the middle of all of those stories there is something that I realised was happening: rape, depressed, lost hope. Then the women came, then my sister came. Then a sisters’ association came. I gained strength, I had hope and now I can make it again.

“That was the beautiful line in all of the stories. While the world called Congo the capital of rape, I call Congo the capital of sisterhood and solidarity.”

 

 

“Our job is to prevent them coming here” – EU border police

21 January 2011 My heart sank. The stern-faced German Frontex officer immediately reached beneath the passenger seat in our rented car where I had tried to hide my video camera. He and his female colleague then scooped up Maro’s cameras, and started going through our footage.

Maro, the photographer I was with, and the 70-year-old Greek man were talking heatedly with the female officer in Greek. Whatever they were saying didn’t improve the situation because soon we were all driven to a police station in the small town of Orestiada, a few miles from the Greek Turkish border.

When we got to the police station, I groaned quietly as we were taken to the head of police for North Evros, Georgios Salamagkas. The day before he’d given me an extensive interview about the situation in his region, where the number of irregular migrants jumped from 3,500 in 2009 to a massive 36,000 last year. When the interview ended, he asked, ‘you come all this way for that?’ Then puffing on his cigarette, he showed me the contents of his hard drive (pictures of dead migrants being fished out of the River Evros).

And now I’d broken the rules by getting too close to the border, which as well as being one of the last remaining sites of historic tension between Turkey and Greece, was the frontline of the battle between Frontex (the EU’s border police) and desperate people trying to get to Europe.

We arrived in Nea Vyssa, the tiny village where we were arrested, at around half 7 in the morning hoping to see newly arrived migrants. Instead we spent a few hours chatting to locals, who were full of tales about the Pakistanis (local name for all migrants) they had met over the years.

“They are coming here wet and ready to die,” says Mr Fouglias, Nea Vyssa’s baker. “They are poor. They come because they think they will find something better.” Another lady remembers when her neighbour woke up to find 20 Pakistanis hiding in his garden.

We were about to leave when we met an old Greek man called Mr Housidis, who insisted on taking us to see the River Evros, where most migrants enter Greece. It’s very close, he said, as our tiny rental car struggled over the rough track leading away from the village to the border.

Greece: Migrants on the frontier of Europe Picture Maro Kouri

I was glad we were in the car and not walking. There was no road or path, just a barely marked track full of large ditches of muddy water, surrounded by asparagus and wheat fields. Every few hundred metres, there was a tiny brick shelter for farming equipment. Migrants sometimes hide in those places, says Mr Housidis, and in the morning they are found frozen to death. The track from the border is about 5 to 6km from the centre of Nea Vyssa. Migrants crossing the border illegally often take this route at night or very early in the morning.

At the police station, there is a lot of shouting going on, all in Greek. Mr Housidis gets the worst of it. Later Maro tells me the officer yelling at the old man was fed up because it’s not the first time villagers have led journalists to military restricted areas. Mr Housidis is defiant. But there is a man in the village who fishes there all the time, he says. He always brings back huge fish. He expands his arm to show just how big. The officer looks exasperated and I try not to giggle as Maro whispers translations to me. Eventually after various images are deleted from our cameras, we escape the fate of some German reporters arrested only days before and are set free. We drive Mr Housidis back to his wife, who has his lunch waiting.

“It’s like a war zone up there,” a Swedish journalist back from the Evros said to me later. His comment is not far from the truth; 47,000 migrants illegally crossed the 206km border between Greece and Turkey last year and the government cannot cope.

In response George Papandreou, Greece’s prime minister, has mooted the possibility of a 12.5km fence on the land border (the River Evros makes up the rest of the 206km border) between Greece and Turkey to stop people getting in. Major NGOs including the UNHCR have condemned this idea, fearing that a fence would incur huge human costs and hurt genuine asylum seekers.

But the human cost of crossing the border between Greece and Turkey is already high; 45 people died trying to cross last year. The role of the Greek police is to control immigration but often they are forced to rescue desperate migrants trying to cross the border. Salamagkas remembers last summer when rescue teams were sent to 42 migrants huddled on a tiny island on the River Evros; he says they were left there by people smugglers. As they waited the water rose around them, some tried to climb trees for safety. Others had cell phones and called relatives, who then called the police. Receiving the calls was terrifying, he says.

In October last year Frontex sent in 175 police officers from all over Europe to help Salamagkas’ men. The role of the RABIT (Rapid Border Intervention Teams) 2010 force is to “increase the control and surveillance levels at Greece’s external border with Turkey”. But what does this mean on the ground?

Frontex patrols are stationed in all the tiny towns that sit along the border; night and day the officers patrol the border waiting for migrants. One Greek police officer tells me that Frontex has made her job considerably less hazardous.
“Imagine on this road of 12 kilometres, 300, 400 people trying to cross the border. Imagine it was only two or three patrols [each patrol has eight people] to guard the border line,” she says. “Imagine the job they have to do inside of the immigration station. Fingerprints, pictures, find the countries … it was a little bit difficult.”

The EU's border police Frontex at work on patrol. Picture Maro Kouri

The Frontex operation is slick; policemen in military observation towers monitor the area with thermal vision cameras. If they see any migrants, they radio officers on the ground. They are reluctant to talk on the record about their work, but one Frontex officer says that if any migrants are spotted, they are “prevented” from crossing. How?

“Just by being there,” he replies. So the EU’s border security is there to frighten away people trying to enter Europe illegally. But what if they aren’t afraid? The officer shrugs and says, “They stay and they try to convince us to let them come here to Greece. It is not our job to let them come through. Our job is to prevent them from coming here.

“If they touch Greek soil and as a result European territory, then the only thing we can do is to arrest them. The orders are specific, there is no violence. And they usually don’t run. As long as they are coming to Greece, they don’t want anything more, they just stand there and you tell them follow us and they follow. It is very simple.”

Frontex guards arrest 22-year-old Mohammed Picture Maro Kouri

It is too early to measure the success of the EU’s attempts to guard its border in Greece; but the fact is migrants are still getting in. I spoke to a Greek truck driver from Vrysoula who said on one occasion this year he’d seen a group of around 50 Africans are walking across the field behind his house.

Christos Neradzakis’s detached house backs a series of undulating fields leading to the River Evros. His daughter Christine lives close by in a two-storey house he converted for her. Over the years both have witnessed hundreds of migrants making the journey from Turkey. They recount tales of half-naked migrants turning up at night and their village overrun with Frontex offices on patrol.

Most of the migrants want to go to police because who they expect to turn up with papers and paradise, Christos explains. Like many villagers from the local border towns, illegal immigration is huge part of their lives. Often they feed and clothe the more desperate migrants; there is none of the resentment or hostility present in some European cities.

“Greece is becoming a big concentration camp”

This is an extreme description of the effects of Greece’s dysfunctional asylum system, but one that Athens councillor Petros Konstantinou insists on. “The whole of Greece is becoming a concentration camp with no political rights, with no workers’ rights and [only] the absolute rule of the authorities,” he says. While Petros’ anger is about more than an unjust asylum system, that higher bodies are concerned means this is about more than politics. Earlier this month the European Court of Human Rights’ ordered Belgium to pay a fine for returning an Afghan asylum seeker to Greece. This follows moves by several European countries including the UK, Sweden and Ireland to stop returning asylum seekers to the country. Charities and NGOs talk of a humanitarian crisis. Why?

More than 250,000 “illegal” asylum seekers and migrants live in and around Athens, according to the Red Cross. Many sleep in the city’s grand squares and picturesque parks, others seek shelter in abandoned buildings. The lucky ones pay to rent rooms. Conditions vary: I learnt of one example where 70 people shared around 80sqm. They paid daily (€3), weekly (€10) or monthly (€70). Others talk of 20-30 people sharing one or two rooms.

I visit one dingy apartment on the third floor of a grey block of flats on a faded street near Victoria Square, a tense ghetto shared by immigrants and poor Greeks. The unfurnished flat is shared by 24 people including women and children, all from Iran and Afghanistan. There are no beds or even mattresses; they all sleep on a tired looking rug covering a wooden floor. Once a week they can use the shower and there is a kitchen, though they have very little to eat.

As I take off my shoes and am ushered into one of the sparse rooms, six or seven Afghani men sit around eager to tell their stories. But I’m keen to hear from the women who live this life, so I ask the men if I can speak to their wives. Two young women with tired eyes come into the room, adjusting their head scarves looking shy.

I film the interview and am surprised when very quickly they relax and begin telling their stories enthusiastically in Farsi. Later my translator Ezmerey tells me that they would have never let me film them or have spoken to me when they first arrived in Greece, but after months in a hopeless situation, they are desperate.

Like many Afghans in Greece, they have tried countries closer to home. Both women and their families lived in Iran for years before trying their luck in Europe. Having interviewed several Afghan refugees on separate occasions, a familiar pattern of discrimination and poverty has emerged about life for Afghanis in Iran. So Esmarael, 25, and her husband sold everything they owned and left the country with their three children. The toughest part of her journey was the 7-hour walk through mountains in Iran and to the border with Turkey. It took 15 days to get to Greece.

Having been in Greece for five months Esmarael feels trapped and is desperate to leave. She and her husband can’t find work, they have no social assistance from the Greek government and their applications have joined a queue of thousands, some who have been waiting a decade for a decision. Until a decision has been made on their application, they cannot leave the country legally because they have no papers. On top of that having paid their life savings to people smugglers and with little chance of finding work in Greece, they have no money. They tell people back in Afghanistan that it is better to die there than come here.

Farida, the older of the two women, says her family never intended to stay in Greece. The smugglers put them on a boat from Turkey, which was supposed to take them to Italy. After 16 hours floating aimlessly in the Aegean sea, the boat began to sink and they were rescued by Greek coasts guards and taken to one of the Aegean Islands. Four people drowned. Farida’s voice cracks, and she begins to cry and words tumble from her mouth. She is the picture of utter despair.

“We don’t have any more hope for our lives. The best hope is for our children, even though they don’t have any hope because they are so depressed living here.” She gestures towards her 9-year-old son, a silent sweet-faced boy with dark circles under wide eyes. He is ill, but every day he must go out and sell cigarette lighters. “That is the best he can do now.”

Farida from Afghanistan living in a tiny flat in Athens

Afghan boy living rough in Athens

Farida’s story is one of nearly 70,000 who are waiting for the Greek government to make a decision on their case. While economic migrants form part of irregular immigration to Greece, the majority of immigrants come from Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, Iran and Iraq. Yet the number of asylum seekers recognised as refugees in Greece is less than 1%, the lowest in the European Union.

Lawyers say the backlog is due to the 2009 immigration law which abolished a person’s right to appeal an asylum decision. On arrival in Greece, most immigrants are arrested, their finger prints are taken, they put in detention centres and eventually released with a temporary residence permit giving them one month to leave the country. Unless they know someone in Greece already, it is nearly impossible for them to access a lawyer to help appeal the permit and make an application for asylum. (Also remember, the whole process is run by the police, including the screening of who is and who isn’t a genuine asylum seeker.)

If they do find out how to make an application, the place to do it is a centre on an industrial estate a 20-minute bus ride from the centre of Athens. The dirt road with no pavements to step on to avoid passing lorries leads to two offices, one where people apply for a work permit and the other for asylum applications. The office for work permits opens once a week on a Friday night at around 11pm. Out of a queue of hundreds, guards choose around 20 applications to process, in order of ethnicity. Europeans first, then Russians, then Albanians, and so on.

Most asylum seekers try to leave Greece for other European countries. But under the European Union’s Dublin II regulation asylum seekers are only allowed to make one asylum claim and that must be in the first EU country they enter. Up till a year or so ago, this meant border countries Spain, Italy and Greece took in the most applications. But since Spain and Italy made agreements with north African countries to take people back, it is almost impossible for migrants to enter Europe across the Mediterranean. Instead most go through Turkey and enter Europe through Greece.

So Greece is receiving around 80,000 irregular migrants a year, processing very few of them and preventing them from leaving. But they do try to leave. Drinking tea in an Egyptian bar, I watch two dark skinned men walk in with suitcases and dispirited looks on their faces. Ezmerey looks sympathetic. “You see a lot of that,” he says. People try to leave the country with whatever papers they have or with fake ID, most fail and are sent back. They try every day, he says.

What’s behind this nonsensical system? Greece is also a loser under this set up, with increased overcrowding and poverty in its inner cities. Spyros Rizakos, a Greek asylum lawyer, thinks that the Greek government adopted a “stupid mentality” where they didn’t want to be seen as a country sympathetic to refugees. At the same time they couldn’t be seen to be breaking international and European covenants protecting the rights of refugees. They only processed cases from countries they could easily reject. Others, “they preferred to have the cases pending and not take decisions. Maybe they hoped the situation in Afghanistan would improve,” Spyros shrugs bemused.

But there is hope. The new socialist government has drawn up a new asylum law, taking control of asylum and immigration away from the police and setting up a new asylum office. There will be a committee specially trained to screen asylum applicants and the UNHCR and other NGOs will be permitted to sit in on asylum interviews. The law abolishing right of appeal on asylum claims has been scrapped. And there will be a 3-6 month time limit on first instance decisions.

Having worked in asylum and refugee issues for a decade and struggled to keep his organisation afloat, Spyros is understandably cynical. As we talk in his small, bare office in Athens, a colleague takes a call from the airport. They try to be on hand to help any Dublin returnees. Last week they took on a torture victim returned from Hungary.

He thinks the new law is ambitious and expensive, which means it could take years to put in place. “Under the present situation and from our experience we doubt if these plans will be realised. We are very worried and sceptical.
“We need practical solutions that can be immediately applied and then we can see other more ambitious plans. But what we have is access blocked, the system not working, reception conditions very bad. [The government] should find ways to address this situation immediately, to address this humanitarian crisis.”

When I ask if there is any hope to be had in the EU’s implementation this year of part II of its Common European Asylum System, he is even more disparaging. If the EU wanted to force Greece to change things, they could, but they are more interested in keeping people out. He points out that the EU very quickly managed to force this government to implement a tough, unpopular austerity budget at a time of high unemployment, if they can do that, “How come they cannot do the same for the asylum system?”

Afghan boy living rough in Athens

“We are here and we are human”

18 January 2011- “What is happening? What is going on?” asks a young woman looking shocked and slightly fearful. “It is a quiet area, it’s unusual this is happening here. In the centre [of Athens] yes, but not here”, she says, gesturing at the immaculate tree-lined streets leading up to the Greek ministry for citizen protection.

What had unsettled the woman was that about metre from where she was waiting for a bus, at least 20 armed police officers had formed two semi-circles around 15 Afghani men, women and children preventing them from leaving a small area of pavement. Ten of them were blue-uniformed ordinary officers with flat caps, riot shields, sneers and cigarettes – they formed the inner circle around the Afghans, stopping them from leaving the tight space (in England, they call this kettling, a controversial method used by the police to control large protests).

The outer ring was made of 10 riot officers in green khaki and wearing heavy black boots and protective knee pads. They wore helmets with shields and carried guns and canisters of tear gas. Having got caught in the kettle myself, I was quickly let out when I told them I was journalist. When I started taking pictures, a couple of officers started yelling for me to stop. Why? I asked. “Because the government says,” he said. Expecting trouble? I ask the police officer in charge. “We thought there would more of them,” he shrugs apologetically. “Since we’re here, we might as well stay.” He looks nervous as a Greek TV crew turns up.

shot of police gun and afghan boy in athens Greece

The Afghans are asylum seekers caught up in Greece’s notoriously slow asylum system (what system? One Greek journalist tells me, exasperated. That’s the problem, we don’t have one). They were on their way to a meeting with the minister to present their demands: that their applications for asylum are looked at. The 15 represent a group of about 100 men, women and children, some who have waited years to have their applications looked at. The government must make it hard to get asylum in Greece, if it is easy everyone will come here, one sympathetic Greek activist tells me.

But despite the horror stories, they are still coming. Between 75-90% of asylum seekers and migrants that enter Europe travel through Greece and most get stuck unable to leave except illegally. Just last weekend 22 – that’s the official number but sources here say it is closer to 60 – Afghans went missing after their boat (carrying more than 200 people) hit difficult conditions sailing from Corfu to Italy. One Afghan man I spoke to in Victory Square, an area heavily populated with migrants, said he was depressed about the news. Not just because he had a friend on board, but because he had been hoping to leave Greece, where he’d been staying for 3 months with his wife and child.

close up of Aghan hunger striker with sewn lips
Thanks to photo journalist Dimitri Aspiotis for letting me use his pics

The 100-odd Afghans are hoping to avoid being smuggled out of Greece or deported back to their war-torn country and be granted asylum legally. Since November they have set up a small protest camp outside Athens University in Leoforos Panepistimiou, a busy street forming part of a popular shopping district in Athens. Since 29 December six of them have sewn their lips together and are on hunger strike. They are desperate.

A representative from the ministry comes out and says five people can go in. Three Afghans, Petros Konstantinou (an Athens politician) and a representative from a doctors union go inside. The Afghans inside the “kettle” look tired, but hopeful. Reza is there with his wife and children including a 6-month-old baby daughter. “We want to show that we are human and we are here in Greece,” he says wearily. “We didn’t know this would happen.” But Sam, a confident 25-year-old Afghan in a Nike hoody with a sticker saying ‘asylum is my right’, says, “We are not afraid [of the riot police] because we were in a bad situation in Afghanistan.” I suppose having someone from the Taliban running your village would be scarier than Greek police officers calling you “wankers” (translation from Greek) and sneering at you.

After three hours, the five return with nothing. They didn’t get the meeting with the minister, but they met two senior officials who basically told them to wait until the end of month when the new asylum law (more on that later) becomes effective.

The hunger strikers and their supporters looked crestfallen. They have pledged to continue their protest until their applications are looked at. Three of their number had already been in and out of hospital. “They want to put the life of the strikers at risk,” Petros said. But life in Greece without papers, without work and without hope is worse and as I write this one of the Afghans calls to say two more people have sewn their mouths and have joined the hunger strike.

Greek riot police kettle protestors

Petros too, a left-wing councillor who won 90% of the immigrant vote last year, is hopeful. “I think that the struggle of the refugees will be victorious.”